As we have discussed at great length here in the past, learning to play music requires learning a whole new skill set. From reading music, to proper breathing techniques, to teamwork, and eventually to improvisation, there is a lot of work that goes into learning to play an instrument. And for many people, this new skill set isn’t enough on its own; for some, songwriting is the ultimate goal. And with that goal comes even more skills that need to me learned, processed, internalized, and eventually expressed. Like most talents in life, some people have a natural “knack” for songwriting, while others need to work at it before becoming “good” at it. Regardless of which group you happen to be in, like everything else, this set of skill can be improved through practice and perseverance. If you’re looking to improve your songwriting game, we’ve got the top 5 essential skills you should be working on.
Start With the Basics
As always, a good foundation of basic knowledge is always the best place to start when acquiring new skills. A strong understanding of the basic principles of song form, chord structure and progression, melodies and harmonies, and lyrics will give you a solid place to fall back on when you get stuck or suffer from “songwriter’s block.” These basic skills can help turn a boring, bland composition into something brilliantly unique with only a few simple note changes, chord transitions, or tempo changes. A simple understanding of how the different parts of a song come together is the basis of all the skills you need to be a successful songwriter.
Just like learning to play an instrument, or learning anything new for that matter, the first skill you should be working on is practicing. At first glance this doesn’t seem so much like a “skill” as a necessary action for improvement, but I beg to differ. Learning to practice is as much a skill as any other part of your music making endeavors.
The best way to hone your practicing skill is to simply make yourself do it. Just like an athlete who practices and trains day in and day out, you too should be making the time to write every single day to reach your highest potential. Regardless of whether you’re a natural talent or not, any skills you may have acquired mean little if your brain can’t gt used to using them. Make time for at least 30 minutes of songwriting every day and use it to experiment with chords, lyrics, and themes. Maybe play around with something you’ve already written. Rearrange an existing song. It doesn’t really matter what it is you do, a long as you take the time to do something. Don’t worry too much about what you’re producing, after all, you’re just practicing. That being said, some hits come in a flash, so be ready if you find a unique hook!
Contrary to popular belief, you can develop your ear for music. You may never have perfect pitch or anything, but you can learn to pick apart your favourite music, looking for the technical aspects of each song. The best way to train your ear in this way is to just listen to music.
As a budding songwriter you ought to be listening to music on a daily basis, listening for specific chords or common themes. Listen for harmonies and melodies that work well together, or illicit some kind of emotional response. Analyze lyrics, song structure, and arrangement. Like pretty much everyone, you’re likely to begin training this skill by listening to your favourite artists. Of course, that is the most logical, and best place to start, but don’t limit yourself. Branch out to other genres, even styles you may not be particularly fond of. Every genre has its own techniques, styles, and quirks that make it unique, and the more songwriting and music making techniques you expose yourself to and try to analyze, the greater and deeper your understanding will be. You may even pick up on some things in one genre that may sound new, interesting, and fresh in another.
By listening to music with a critical ear you will begin to develop a deeper understanding of songwriting. By listening to other artists you can begin to understand how all the individual parts of songwriting come together lyrically and musically to create something amazing.
Some would argue that composers and songwriters differ in one critical way: lyrics. If you want to be a strong songwriter you’ll need to work on your creative writing skills. You’ll need to learn to write lyrics that convey strong emotions in your listeners, without being too wordy or convoluted. This can be a major feat all to itself. Some people are blessed with a natural talent for words, while others have to struggle for a long time before becoming great at it. If you find yourself in the former group, grappling with imparting feeling and emotion, don’t get discouraged. Refer to number 2 and 3 on this list. Skills like this do not come easily for everyone, but listening to how successful professionals do it, and making the time to practice, practice, practice can help you to develop over time. Don’t give up!
This final skill can be one of the most difficult to obtain. Lots of beginner songwriters can feel self-conscious about their work, and many others simply can’t stand the thought of working with others. The fact is, every songwriter uses a different approach to creating music. Even other people in the same songwriting class. Not only can working with someone else help you overcome your own songwriting obstacles, it can also introduce you to an entirely different way of approaching the craft.
Collaboration can also help get you out of your comfort zone, and experimenting with things you may never have though up on your own. May people, myself included, would argue that breaking out of your own little comfortable mold helps produce the best, most interesting music. Like the old saying goes, “two heads are better than one!”